Priyanka Chopra Jonas looks radiant as I sit next to her, and ask her if she remembers her very first day as a debutant actor; on the sets of the film Thamizhan in 2002 opposite actor Vijay, years before she established herself as star in Bollywood/ Hollywood and set on the path towards global domination. (Incidentally, her first track as a singer is also from the same film; set to tune by composer D. Imman)
She is thrilled to be asked this. “Oh god, I recall exactly how I was feeling; I just wanted to get through the day! There I was, trying to memorise my Tamil dialogues and learn my dance steps. I’d practice the choreo continuously for three days straight and still struggle, whereas Vijay — who is such an incredible dancer — would come on set, learn the moves for five minutes, and own it.”
Priyanka even remembers the lines to her first song. “Ullathai killaathae, killi vittu sellaathae…,” she hums jauntily, to the surprise of everyone around.
On the ‘Citadel’ universe, Richard Madden and Stanley Tucci
On to her latest project then — the spy drama Citadel — in which Priyanka teams up with Richard Madden (Game of Thrones, Bodyguard) in a multi-continent-spanning adventure of high stakes, that involves everything from regaining wiped memories to stopping an evil syndicate from establishing a new world order.
Priyanka and Richard’s off-the-charts chemistry (be it in action or romance) from early footage of the show is making all the right noises, and the two have already waxed eloquent about working with each other. So we ask PC about her other Citadel co-star, the inimitable Stanley Tucci (The Devil Wears Prada, The Lovely Bones); given that both share a deep love for food and cuisine (Tucci’s travel-food series Searching for Italy is an absolute delight), how was it to share screen space with him?
“I love his work, and I’m such a fan! But unfortunately we didn’t have too many scenes or time together; he’s predominantly in my ear (on the microphone) and never face-to-face. If we do a second season, I really should sit him down and plan this food collaboration. Maybe call him over for an Indian night at Sona... or I’ll go over for an Italian night at his restaurant,” she smiles. (Priyanka Chopra Jonas is a creative consultant at Sona, a trendy Indian restaurant set in Manhattan.)
Demanding representation and forging a path
Citadel is the latest in many recent Hollywood big-budget productions to be headlined by a brown actor, after years of the community lacking representation in English-language features. It does feel like we are on the precipice of a cultural shift finally though; Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Hasan Minhaj, Ritu Arya and Kumail Nanjiani, and PC herself are just some of the names headlining popular titles nowadays.
Priyanka responds to being asked if the last decade has been particularly significant for South Asian stars: “You know, I think we just demanded it. I know I went there and demanded it. Though I did some small roles to build my credibility, at one point, I said no to sidekick roles and went to leading lady auditions. So people saw the success — be it that of Quantico, The Mindy Project, or Aziz’s (Ansari) show Master of None — and realised that we could convince Hollywood it was possible to cast brown actors in leading roles. It took a bunch of us all this time and work to create that space though.”
She adds, “I do want to see more Indians and the South Asian community in general do well in front of, and behind the camera in Hollywood, just like other ethnicities. Bollywood is one of the largest film industries in the world; we have all the technical knowledge and understanding of how to be on set… we just need the opportunity now. For those looking for it (make that jump to Hollywood) — not everyone is — there shouldn’t be any more closed doors. We are slowly pushing down those barriers.”
Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham: PC in Bollywood
Earlier last month, the 40-year-old caused quite a bit of consternation on a podcast, where she revealed that she left Bollywood, as filmmakers back home were “not casting” her and she needed a break from the exhausting politics of the industry. “I had beef with people,” she said, setting gossip columns and rumour mills into overdrive.
Later at the launch of Citadel in Mumbai, Priyanka gracefully addressed her earlier comments, saying she felt the time was right to speak up finally. She went on to describe the shoot of her new series as “watching a duck glide on water.” “It looks all smooth on the surface from above, but down below, you’ll see the flippers thrashing madly,” she said.
I ask her; fantastic metaphor to perhaps describe her own career, given all the talk in recent weeks?
Priyanka hesitates for a minute; then augurs, “That’s accurate for sure. But I’m someone who fights my battles quietly, and let my work speak for me. I’m not a sensationaliser. Everyone has strife in their life, but it is what you do after failure that makes you the person that you are. I’ve had many slaps on the face, many rejections, and many losses in the last 22 years. But I have survived, thanks to all the strength that I’ve developed.”
It’s all about the balance
Winner of the Miss World 2000 pageant, National Best Actress winner (Fashion), Padma Shri awardee, and of course, the critically-acclaimed star of several Indian blockbusters like Mary Kom, Bajirao Mastani, Barfi!, Krrish and Don over a 20-year career. But none of this mattered in Los Angeles, where she had to start almost from scratch again eight years ago, after being cast as Alex Parrish in the thriller series Quantico.
However, she says she doesn’t feel like an outsider anymore, “I’ve done enough work and know enough people in Hollywood; more importantly, people know me now. What I want to do now is work on my craft more; I’ve done such a variety of roles in my Bollywood career and collaborated with the best of filmmakers, but that hasn’t happened in America yet. This is my quest for the next decade of my life as an actor.”
But given that she’s also a producer, investor, entrepreneur, restaurateur and a new mother now (to Malti Marie Chopra Jonas), does it ever get a bit overwhelming to balance life off-screen and her cinematic choices?
“I’m a woman; I can multitask really, really well. For real though, when I’m doing something, I’m giving it a 100 percent, be it my investments, a board meeting for my brand, a production discussion for Purple Pebble or when I’m on set. I’m very good at dividing and bifurcating my time. I’m a major planner; I don’t just walk into the day without a schedule,” she answers, lightly.
“Having said that, I do have an extensive team that makes all of this possible. There are departments, and heads of departments who are accountable to me. It’s almost a big conglomerate! (laughs) I don’t do it alone; these incredible guys prop me up and handle all the minor aspects, so that I can focus on the creative aspects.”
I have a final question; what does she feel about everyone referring to husband Nick Jonas as ‘jiju’ at the NMACC gala?
Priyanka grins. “Nick.. is national jiju now. They (the paps) have been calling him that for a while now, and he responds to it actively even. You know what… I think he really enjoys it too.”
Citadel premieres April 28, with new episodes released weekly every Friday through May 26